There’s nothing like a crisis to rescue an ailing candidate

Yes, he’s back. Just when the French Socialists thought that they were jogging into the Elysée Palace for the first time in 17 years, a discredited president has remounted his favourite war horse, a national security crisis, and with three weeks to go before the first round on 22 April, the left has a fight on its hands.

Ten days ago, most commentators agreed that François Hollande merely had to keep his head and events would take their inevitable course. Nicolas Sarkozy, a deeply unpopular president, was about to disappear into the wastepaper basket of history. The election campaign was regarded as ‘boring’ or ‘too technical’ by two out of three voters, and had deteriorated into a dry battle of economic statistics. And the polls persistently gave Hollande an eight-point lead over Sarkozy in the second round on 6 May.

Following the remark by Claude Guéant, the interior minister, that ‘Not all civilisations in the world are of equal value’ – a reference to Islam’s teaching on human rights and the treatment of women – Sarkozy was seen as ‘anti-Arab’. Meanwhile, Hollande was backing a call to remove the ‘r’ word from article  2 of the constitution, which ensures equality before the law, regardless of ‘origin or race’. In the view of his triumphant supporters, the mere presence of the word ‘race’ in an official document had become an incitement to racism. In short, everything seemed set for the joys to come: five years of ultra-correct progressive government.

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On a tour of the outer-city housing estates of Strasbourg, Hollande noted that unemployment in the banlieues was twice the national average and up to 40 per cent among the young. He also taunted Sarkozy for his failure to deliver the ‘Marshall Plan’ for deprived urban areas that he had promised in 2007. Hollande even found time on Sunday 18 March to visit the Paris Book Fair and sign copies of his latest work, Changing Destiny. Later, he attended a rally of supporters that included pupils from a school for circus clowns. Then at 8.30 the following morning, three Jewish children were murdered in a primary school in Toulouse.

The terrorist attack was followed by a 24-hour campaigning truce, but when the killer was identified as a French citizen of Algerian origin who had been trained by
al-Qa’eda, racial stereotypes had to be abandoned and all candidates were forced to tread carefully. The new challenge was how to gain a political advantage without appearing to do so.

The president’s task was the easiest. The shootings took place on Monday. By Wednesday, a suspect, Mohammed Merah, had been identified and surrounded and was providing the police with a great deal of information down a telephone line. By Thursday morning, he had, rather conveniently, been shot dead. Sarkozy had apparently presided over a national tragedy and resolved it. But even before these events, there were signs that the left had written off Sarkozy too soon.

Both leading candidates face a significant challenge from outsiders. On the right, Marine Le Pen has given the Front National a thorough overhaul, retaining the core issues of immigration, crime and unemployment, but adding a broadly populist appeal designed to attract working-class support. This includes ritual abuse of the banks and high finance, an increase in the minimum wage, departure from Nato, opposition to gay marriage and abortion, and leaving both the euro and the jurisdiction of the European court. At times, Madame Le Pen sounds like a spokeswoman for Ukip. She has the advantage of being both wittier and better-humoured than her father was, but has the same strong tactical sense.

Her mirror opposite, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is the surprise of the campaign to date. The Front de Gauche is a new party of his own invention. He is an ex-Socialist minister who has formed an electoral alliance with what remains of the once mighty PCF (Parti Communiste Français) and, having started with 7 per cent of the vote, is now just half a point behind the Front National, on 13 per cent. Some polls even put him ahead. Mélenchon represents the first convincing attempt to revive the French left since the blood was sucked from the Socialist party by the fatal kiss of the late President Mitterrand in 1994, when he disclosed his wartime record as a Pétainist official.

Mélenchon is obsessed with Marine Le Pen, whom he mimics on the platform and  has compared to ‘a demented bat’. But, like her, he opposes the European Union treaty, wants to raise the minimum wage, preaches loathing of the banks and would take France out of Nato. Mélenchon does not wish to ‘reduce immigration by 95 per cent’. Instead, he wants an amnesty for illegal immigrants and an increase in their access to health care and housing. His eloquence and powerful campaigning personality have attracted a high proportion of younger voters. He has started to attack Hollande as ‘too floppy’ and his growing popularity could even deprive the Socialist party’s candidate of the votes needed for a first-round lead. His ambition is for the Front de Gauche to replace the Front National as the natural choice of first-round protest voters.

This week’s simple arithmetic still gives the left the lead on 22 April, and they are hoping that supporters of the third leading minority party, François Bayrou’s centrist Mouvement Démocrate, who supported Sarkozy in the second round in 2007, will decide that it is now ‘time for change’. An analysis of Front National voters, suggesting that 23 per cent prefer the left and only 32 per cent the mainstream right, gives the Socialists further grounds for optimism.

Against this, Sarkozy has one great advantage. He is still, by some way, the best campaigner in the field. And many people now see him as a courageous underdog who knew how to lead the country at a moment of national crisis.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated